By Elaine Rosenberg Miller
All our lives, my sister and I had heard about my father’s aunt, how she had stayed behind with her elderly parents as her sisters and their husbands and children fled towards the Soviet Union.
The lull, following the first days of the war, had ended. The Germans were advancing towards their town, Ulanow, Poland. A Yiddish speaking Russian soldier had knocked on the door of their wooden house and said “We’re leaving in the morning. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll come with us.”
My teenaged father, five younger siblings, his parents, two aunts and their families, started their trek eastwards.
But Ruchel did not go with them.
She was twenty seven and lived with her parents, Ita and Rafael.
She was the child of their old age.
“I remember her standing there on the side of the road, waving at us,” my father’s sister once told me. “She wanted to come with us. But she didn’t.”
“Are you sure that your grandparents couldn’t have made the trip?” I asked.
“They would have died on the way or in Siberia.”
“When grandma survived the war,” I said, “she was one of the few people of her generation left alive. Her parents, siblings, everyone were gone. I wonder how she felt.”
She was silent.
“What was she like?” I asked.
“Oh, she was very pretty. She had straight hair.”
“What color eyes?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Grandma had green eyes. Did she have green eyes?”
“I was just a child.”
“Did you ever find out what happened to your grandparents?”
She shook her head.
“How did they die?”
“No one knows.”
“I heard that they died in the street. I heard.”
“Maybe Belzec. Maybe.”
For years, my sister and I heard about Ruchel.
Her act silenced us.
Whatever problems we faced, questions we had, the image of Ruchel waving at her departing family made all pale in comparison.
She was one of eight children. Dozens of her nephews and nieces lived in Ulanow. As the maiden aunt, she was a figure of affection, warmth to them, giving them treats, an admiring word.
For decades, Ulanow’s location remained a mystery to me. No map listed it. Then, one day, I found it in a book titled Macmillan Atlas of the Holocaust. It was perched at the divergence of the San and Tanew rivers.
Ulanow was real, not just a tale told by my father, another story of “the other side” as my relatives termed pre-war Europe.
Ulanow had been an important town in the first days of the war. The Russians had taken it, then withdrawn. The Germans had occupied it.
A photograph of Ruchel revealed a young woman who wore her hair in a bob. Her expression was determined. It seemed to say, that given the right set of circumstances she would have left Ulanow and moved to a city, gone dancing, been held by a man.
“When was this taken?” I asked my father.
“She had a nice dress.”
“She could sew.”
“I loved my grandparents,” he said. “I spent more time with them than my own parents. Whenever I would visit them, my grandfather would call ‘Ita! Give the boy something to eat!’”
My father, hobbled by osteoarthritis, sat in the sun of his Florida independent living facility and remembered his youth.
I wondered at how fortuitous his survival had been.
He and his family were transported by cattle cars to Siberia. Two years later they were relocated to Tashkent. Due to his mechanical ability he was chosen to be the chauffeur and bodyguard of the Governor-General of the region. He carried a sidearm. He was exempt from the military, obtained privileges and food for his family.
“After the war, did your mother ever talk about her parents?”
I looked at my father. I recalled my sister’s phone calls detailing his increasing medical problems. His face was ochre colored, his eyes red rimmed. Purple splotches disfigured his hands. Still, he was as handsome as a matinee idol. His eyes, unencumbered by recently removed cataracts seemed more hazel than brown.
“C’mon, Dad. It’s time to go in for dinner. Let me help you.”
from the April 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine